CLEVELAND — Here at one of the largest food banks in the country in one of the poorest urban communities in the U.S., food is stacked high to the three-story ceiling in a warehouse that’s twice the size of a football field. Bins the size of small cars hold cans of soup and slightly smashed boxes of muffin mix. Even kale chips are plentiful.
But it’s still not enough to feed everyone who needs it. Through a network of pantries, community centers and schools, the food bank provides more than 50 million meals in Northeast Ohio each year, serving about a third of the 620,000 people across six counties who are eligible for help.
And now, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and many others across the country are worried that looming federal spending decisions could expose them to even greater demand, so they are gearing up for what may be one of the fall’s most intense, though under-the-radar, budget battles as Congress returns from recess this week.
Lawmakers are considering making $10 billion in mandatory cuts from agriculture programs over a decade, and anti-hunger groups expect most, if not all, of that could come from federal food stamp benefits, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Advocates fear it would only be the beginning. A separate — though far less likely — piece of the GOP budget calls for $150 billion in cuts to the program over the next decade.
“We do a wonderful job, but SNAP feeds so many more people,” said Kristin Warzocha, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
Food banks nationwide serve some 4 billion meals each year, but that represents just 10 percent of what food stamps provide with a current annual budget of $71 billion. So even though food banks are largely funded by charitable donations, they’re weighing in to protect a government program because they’re worried that they’ll be flooded with needy families if benefits are cut, especially at the end of the month when paychecks and Social Security benefits run out.
Food banks and other anti-hunger charities spent the congressional recess urging lawmakers to protect SNAP, with a special focus on moderate Republicans who will be key in the fate of their party’s decade-long budget plan. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) stopped by a food truck helping to feed hungry kids in Roanoke, and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) posed in front of a wall of canned food at North Texas Food Bank, while Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) joined a mobile “Belly Bus” food drive in the small city of Greenfield.
The Cleveland food bank hosted all of the member agencies in its network at its headquarters last month. The featured speaker was Rep. Dave Joyce, a moderate Republican who’s gone on the record urging the House Budget Committee not to go after $200 billion in cuts to mandatory programs.
John Visnauskas, who runs All Faiths Pantry, an organization that delivers groceries from the food bank to hundreds of low-income, home-bound seniors in Cleveland’s western suburbs each month, says he can’t fathom why lawmakers would want to cut SNAP. Eligibility for SNAP is based on income and also takes into account a household’s basic expenses. A single-adult household with $1,200 per month in income — right above the poverty line — might quality for $40 per month in assistance, while a family of four with the same income might get $400.
“Most of our clients are on SNAP, but most of them get less than $20 a month from SNAP, like $11 or $14 per month, since they’re just above the poverty line,” said Visnauskas.
Many of the seniors he serves live in middle-class neighborhoods, where the needs of those who are struggling to get by are often less apparent. “Now, poverty has marched to the suburbs,” he said. And there is a large and growing need for food assistance among seniors, in particular. “The silver tsunami is here. It’s upon us.”
Food banks tend to escape the polarization and controversy around public assistance, in part because these massive operations are largely run on donations, receiving dented and near-expired food from grocery stores and money from local philanthropists and corporations (though they also rely on government for commodities and some funding).
Food banks, which often partner with faith-based groups to distribute food, enjoy a rare, nonpartisan place in politics, making them uniquely able to advocate across party lines. The food bank in East Cleveland, like many others across the country, has support from Democrats and from Republicans and other perhaps more popular pillars of the community, like the Cavaliers.
It’s not just the food banks pushing back on cuts to SNAP. Advocates who work on everything from housing to children’s issues and health care have told lawmakers not to cut back on one of the country’s largest anti-poverty programs.
The Republican caucus, meanwhile, is deeply divided about how far its long-term budget cuts should go. On the right, Heritage Action and the Freedom Caucus are pressing Republicans to go even bigger with their cuts, while moderates in the so-called Tuesday Group have warned that deep cutbacks are politically unfeasible and will imperil any chance of tax reform.
The Heritage Foundation and its affiliates have been particularly vocal in calling for cuts to SNAP, including a big renewed push to impose stricter work requirements for able-bodied recipients without dependents — an issue that’s a nonstarter for Democrats.
The group sees the House budget cuts to the agriculture committee as a modest move in the right direction.
“It seems like a fine first step, but there’s obviously a lot of work to do to get government spending under control,” said Dan Holler, vice president of Heritage Action, a sister organization to the foundation that advocates for policies.
Even more than the $10 billion in mandated cuts, it’s the House Budget Committee’s assumptions about deeper cuts to come that have advocates truly worried as Congress returns this week to focus on the budget and tax reform.
The panel is essentially saying that it hopes Congress will come up with $150 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade by giving states more control over administering the program.
Giving states more control is often seen as a euphemism for distributing the money through block grants, something House Speaker Paul Ryan has long sought, though budget staff members are careful to avoid using the term. Advocates see any move toward block granting as an existential threat to SNAP, especially after block-granting cash welfare programs in the 1990s led to a massive reduction in caseloads while poverty rates persisted.
It’s not the first time House budget leaders have come up with this idea of saving $150 billion by trimming SNAP, but it is the first time the blueprint is being weighed with Republicans controlling the House, Senate and White House. And the budget resolution is also now politically tied to one of the top priorities of the GOP: tax reform.
“There’s a lot of concerns about the level of cut that’s being considered,” said Kate Leone, senior vice president of government relations for Feeding America, a network that includes most of the major food banks and touches every single county and congressional district in the country. “Obviously the $10 billion is the immediate threat, but the $150 billion? Those cuts are something the food banks just plain can’t make up.”
Another working theory about how the GOP could achieve the desired reduction is to require states to offer matching funds, much as President Donald Trump’s budget, proposed earlier this year, would do. This, too, alarms leaders at the local level, especially those who are working at the state level, where budgets are shrinking.
Here in Ohio, for example, the state legislature just had to cut some $800 million from its two-year budget to make ends meet. If Ohio had to match just 20 percent of the money it receives from SNAP, the bill would come out to $600 million each year — something that anti-hunger advocates do not see happening.
About a mile from the Cleveland food bank’s massive warehouse, a small community center helps feed low-income children and seniors all summer long as part of the food bank’s network of feeding sites. The Ten Commandments are posted in the dimly lit entrance. Mary Fayne, in her 80s, is mopping the floor in the basement — a chore she finishes before we sit down to talk about spending politics.
“We’re working on a shoestring budget,” Fayne said. With a budget of just $30,000 per year, she serves up meals to 45 to 60 seniors, three days a week, all year.
She was quick to note that her meals are wholesome and cooked from scratch: sausage and oven-baked potatoes with salad, steak and rice with green peas and carrots. For seniors to qualify, they have to prove they are living in poverty by bringing documentation with them. The average income for a senior coming to have lunch is $1,200 per month, she said.
Fayne blames the poverty in her community on a lack of jobs and substandard education. “We’ve got a system that needs to be fixed,” she says. “We really do.”
She’s dismayed at the idea that Congress would even think about cutting SNAP, which is a lifeline to many of the seniors she serves.
“I hope they don’t cut it. I hope they don’t,” she said. “It’s going to impact places like ours. We’re going to have more people in here.”
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